America’s BDS Law: Attack on Far More than Free Speech

A pair of laws currently making their way through the United States Congress would impose criminal sanctions on Americans who support an economic boycott of Israel or its illegal West Bank settlements. The bill follows in the footsteps of, and in some was surpasses the dozens of American states that have passed their own anti-boycott laws in recent years.

The Senate bill, S. 720, known as the “Anti-Israel Boycott Act,” also goes far beyond what even the Israeli government is willing to do to counter the grassroots movement to end the occupation and achieve certain basic rights for Palestinians. Indeed, Israel has its own anti-boycott law on the books but it not criminal, and it does not directly limit the right to call for such boycotts. Even in Israel calling to boycott the country, its institutions, its citizens, and its settlements are still considered protected speech. The punishment for violating the proposed American law, on the other hand, would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and/or up to a year in prison.

“This bill would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote to U.S. Senators this week, adding that such punishments would be “a direct violation of the first amendment.” Even requesting information about companies that are boycotts would become illegal, the ACLU noted.

But the efforts to stymie boycott efforts in the United States and elsewhere — similar legislation has popped up in Europe — are far more sinister than just restricting the free speech and political expression of American and other supporters of Palestinians. Its true purpose is to block one of the few remaining legitimate, nonviolent tactics Palestinians have for achieving national self-determination and individual rights.

When the Israeli government and its supporters (the Senate bill is being promoted by AIPAC) attempt to delegitimize the Palestinian-led boycott — a political and economic pressure tactic well within the normative democratic toolbox — they are actually saying that Palestinians do not have the same political rights as others with regards to individual political expression, but more importantly, the right to national self-determination.

The latter is particularly sinister when you consider that one of the more common Israeli talking points against the BDS Movement these days is to accuse boycotters of denying the Jewish people the right to national self-determination. Denying that right to the Jewish people alone, the argument goes, means the boycott movement is anti-Semitic. Yet if denying the right to national determination to one specific group means crossing such a thick red line that it wades into anti-Semitic territory, then denying another group a set of legitimate tools for achieving that same aim should be just as unconscionable.

The Palestinian territories have been under Israeli military occupation for over 50 years now. An Israeli military commander is the acting sovereign in the West Bank. That military commander is not accountable to those over whom he rules but rather to the democratically elected government of another country, Israel. There is nothing democratic about it, and Palestinians have no legal avenue to hold their rulers (Israel) accountable or to shape the future of their lives or their country. (The Palestinian Authority has the sovereign powers of an overzealous municipality on a good day.)

So how is a people without any democratic recourse supposed to seek and achieve independence and national self-determination — or even plain-old equality and basic rights? The world long ago made clear to the Palestinians that violence is not a legitimate path for them. That leaves civil disobedience, international solidarity, and economic influence as the primary means of leverage available.

Palestinians have tried to leverage their economic power against Israel in the past. The First Intifada included mass strikes and consumer boycotts. But the Israeli economy was never dependent on Palestinian labor, and in the wake of the First Intifada, Israel sought to immunize itself from further such actions by bringing in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to replace the Palestinian laborers. As a result, the Israeli economy is relatively unsusceptible to direct Palestinian economic leverage today. (There are some more exotic possibilities, like aggressively selling off the shekels in circulation in the Palestinian territories, which could in theory flood the Israeli currency market and lead to temporary retaliatory inflation, but the impact would be limited.)

Which brings us back to international pressure — political and economic. The Senate, AIPAC, and countless others may not be comfortable with the type of leverage a consumer or corporate boycott movement could bring. And such pressure may ultimately prove to be not enough. But to weld that door shut would be to tell the Palestinians that they do not have any agency in determining their own lives and national future, which leaves the ball squarely in Israel’s court. The past 50 years have made clear that as long the stability and relative comfort of the status quo continue to outweigh the risks of change for Israel, ending the occupation will not even appear on the agenda.

Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man is the editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine and a regular contributor of both reporting and analysis. Prior to joining +972 he worked as the news desk manager for Reprinted, with permission, from +972 Magazine. Photo: Protest of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3, 2015 (Stephen Melkisethian via Flickr).

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  1. Another indisputable evidence of the moral collapse of the American institutions and law makers; Once again it testifies to the murderous arrogance of the unleashed American ‘democratic’ fascism that has for too long been claiming to represent the ‘civilized world’.

  2. Aipac continues its insidious efforts to enable Israel to continue the occupation of the West Bank permanently.

  3. In June 2017, due to pubic pressure, the same immoral attempts by the Zionists and the British Conservative government to quash ‘boycotts of Israeli goods and divestment campaign’ were thrown out of court in Britain, in spite of the Zionists’ outdated accusations of ‘antisemitism’ and influences of the pro-apartheid group calling itself ‘Jewish Human Rights Watch’ and the influential pro-Zionist ‘Henry Jackson Society’.

  4. America has been bankrolling and protecting Israel’s illegal occupation and siege of Palestine for decades and going along with the peace process scam for just as long — not to mention coercing and bribing its foreign vassals to go along as well. Had Washington been pursuing true peace and justice, the whole Israel-Palestinian conflict would have been resolved years and years ago. And there would be a lot more Israelis and a lot fewer Palestinians in prison.

    Instead, now Washington wants to criminalize those many Americans who just happen to be pursuing the peace and justice that Washington thumbs its nose at. Oh well, a state in serious decline-and-fall mode often fills its prisons with innocents to shut them up, while its criminals not only go free but are in positions of ultimate political power. And just watch how the latter blithely continue to lecture China and Russia about their abuse of human rights.

  5. I am a liberal/progressive American who does not support S-720.My Democratic Senator (D. Claire McCaskill) has been put on notice to withdraw her co-sponsor of this horrible bill that is a direct affront to my first amendment rights to free speech/press and protest.AIPAC is donating massive amounts of money to 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats who support this bill.It is unconstitutional.These senators took an oath to defend the U.S Constitution but are betraying that oath for re-election $$$ from AIPAC.DARK MONEY.I have supported McCaskill and voted for her but..NO MORE.I care about my constitutional rights more than her.It’s game on.American Civil Liberty Union opposes this bill and have sent letters to each senator supporting it.McCaskill has openly admitted that she has not yet read the letter.These senators have been bribed/bought off with AIPAC money flowing into their re-election campaign coffers.

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